Autistics’ strengths can be useful in research

Published in The Hindu on November 3, 2011

Can some people with autism do well in science, and add value to research done by non-autistic adults? Chances are that any person who either knows or is a parent of an autistic child/adult will dismiss this proposition.

But believe it or not, many autistic adults have certain exceptional and unique capabilities that even very intelligent non-autistic adults may lack. And such capabilities, when properly harnessed, would be of tremendous value to science.

“Many autistics, I believe, are suited for academy science,” writes Laurent Mottron in a Comment piece (“The power of autism”) published in Nature today (November 3). “From a young age, they may be interested in information and structures, such as numbers, letters, mechanisms and geometrical patterns — the basis of scientific thinking.” But it is important to note that not all can do well in research, and research is one of the many areas where some autistics can do well.

Dr. Mottron is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal, and holds the Marcel & Rolande Gosselin Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience of Autism at the same university.

The paper by Prof. Mottron is an eye-opener. It is a very compelling and riveting piece that changes our very perception of the inherent capabilities of some autistics. Considering its importance, the journal has provided people “free access” to the content of November 3 Nature autism special issue “until the end of the year.”

Personal experience

But what makes him extol their capabilities so emphatically? Apart from researching for years on various aspects of autism, he has personal experience working with eight autistic people in his lab — four research assistants, three students and one researcher.

These people are not his subjects of study but who have worked alongside him in some capacity or other on various issues connected with autism. In the process, they have helped him understand their strengths and weaknesses.

For instance, Michelle Dawson, a research assistant with autism, with no formal training in psychiatry or cognitive neuroscience, provided excellent feedback on papers written by Prof. Mottron.


Ms. Dawson has co-authored 13 papers and several book chapters! In fact, she has played a pivotal role in challenging several assumptions about autism.

“Ms. Dawson does not have a scientific degree, but she has learned and produced enough in a few years of reading neuroscience papers to conduct certain types of research,” he writes. “At this point, she deserves a Ph.D.”

Several research studies have shown that their “strengths can be directly useful in research.” But it is important to remember that not all autistics will do well in research. “The strengths we find are actually found at the group level in most autistics. But research requires a combination of skills to be good at, in addition to autistic strengths,” he emphasises.

Their strengths

Autistics have other extraordinary strengths, and can outperform others when it comes to perception tasks. “Spotting a pattern in a distracting environment” is one such example. This is because they can process visual information far better than others. Same is the case with auditory skills.

If understanding and making sense of a very large dataset can stump a non-autistic adult, it is child’s play for autistics. They are “good at spotting recurring patterns” in a large dataset and can correctly notice when such patterns are “broken.”

Since data is vital and so very crucial to science, and given their varied abilities to read and remember them, autistics can sometimes simply walk over others when it comes to interpreting data. And their interpretation comes solely from the data they have before them.

“Her models never over-reach and are infallibly correct,” he writes. Of course, like her, all autistics need a large dataset to arrive at conclusions.

Some people also exhibit good memory — able to recall what they have read ten days ago, even data.

Typically, non-autistics approach a problem from a totally different angle. Hence autistics and non-autistics approach a problem from two totally different directions. They can complement each other in amazing ways when working together as a team.

“Combining the two types of brains in the same research group is amazingly productive,” he writes.